An open textbook is a textbook licensed under an open copyright license, and made available online to be freely used by students, teachers and members of the public. Many open textbooks are distributed in either print, e-book, or audio formats that may be downloaded or purchased at little or no cost.
Part of the broader open educational resources movement, open textbooks increasingly are seen as a solution to challenges with traditionally published textbooks, such as access and affordability concerns. Open textbooks were identified in the New Media Consortium's 2010 Horizon Report as a component of the rapidly progressing adoption of open content in higher education.
The defining difference between open textbooks and traditional textbooks is that the copyright permissions on open textbooks allow the public to freely use, adapt and distribute the material. Open textbooks either reside in the public domain or are released under an open license that grants usage rights to the public so long as the author is attributed.
- use the textbook freely
- create and distribute copies of the textbook
- adapt the textbook by revising it or combining it with other materials
Some open licenses limit these rights to non-commercial use or require that adapted versions be licensed the same as the original.
Some examples of open licenses are:
- Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) 
- Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (CC-BY-SA) 
- Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike (CC-BY-NC-SA) 
- GNU Free Documentation License 
Open textbooks increasingly are seen as an affordable alternative to traditional textbooks in both K-12 and higher education. In both cases, open textbooks offer both dramatic up-front savings and the potential to drive down traditional textbook prices through competition.
Overall, open textbooks have been found by the Student PIRGs to offer 80% or more savings to higher education students over traditional textbook publishers. Research commissioned by the Florida State Legislature found similarly high savings and the state has since implemented a system to facilitate adoption of open textbooks.
In the Florida legislative report, the governmental panel found after substantial consultation with educators, students, and administrators that "there are compelling academic reasons to use open access textbooks such as: improved quality, flexibility and access to resources, interactive and active learning experiences, currency of textbook information, broader professional collaboration, and the use of teaching and learning technology to enhance educational experiences." (OATTF, p. i) Similar state-backed initiatives are underway in Washington, Ohio, California, and Texas. In Canada, the province of British Columbia became the first jurisdiction to have a similar open textbook program.
Research at Brigham Young University has produced a web-based cost comparison calculator for traditional and open K-12 textbooks. To use the calculator the inputs commercial textbook cost, planned replacement frequency, and number of annual textbook user count are required. A section is provided to input time requirements for adaptation to local needs, annual updating hours, labor rate, and an approximation of pages. The summary section applies an industry standard cost for print-on-demand of the adapted open textbook to provide a cost per student per year for both textbook options. A summed cost differential over the planned period of use is also calculated.
In November 2010, Dr. Anthony Brandt was awarded an "Access to Artistic Excellence" grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for his innovative music appreciation course in Connexions. "Sound Reasoning" "takes a new approach [to teaching music appreciation]: It presents style-transcendent principles, illustrated by side-by-side examples from both traditional and contemporary music. The goal is to empower listeners to be able to listen attentively and think intelligently about any kind of music, no matter its style. Everything is listening based; no ability to read music is required." The module being completed with grant funds is entitled "Hearing Harmony". Dr. Brandt cites choosing the Connexions open content publishing platform because "it was an opportunity to present an innovative approach in an innovative format, with the musical examples interpolated directly into the text."
In December 2010, open textbook publisher Flat World Knowledge was recognized by the American Library Association's Business Reference and Services Section (ALA BRASS) by being named to the association's list of "Outstanding Business Reference Sources: The 2010 Selection of Recent Titles." The categories of business and economics open textbooks from Flat World Knowledge's catalog were selected for this award and referenced as "an innovative new vehicle for affordable (or free) online access to premier instructional resources in business and economics." Specific criteria used by the American Library Association BRASS when evaluating titles for selection were:
A resource compiled specifically to supply information on a certain subject or group of subjects in a form that will facilitate its ease of use. The works are examined for authority and reputation of the publisher, author, or editor; accuracy; appropriate bibliography; organization, comprehensiveness, and value of the content; currency and unique addition to the field; ease of use for intended purpose; quality and accuracy of indexing; and quality and usefulness of graphics and illustrations. Each year more electronic reference titles are published, and additional criteria by which these resources are evaluated include search features, stability of content, graphic design quality, and accuracy of links. Works selected are intended to be suitable for medium to large academic and public libraries.
Because authors do not make money form the sale of open textbooks, several organizations have tried to use prizes or grants as financial incentives for writing open textbooks or releasing existing textbooks under open licenses. Connexions announced a series of two grants in early 2011 that will allow them to produce a total of 20 open textbooks. The first five titles will be produced over an 18 month time frame for Anatomy & Physiology, Sociology, Biology, Biology for non-majors, and Physics. The second phase will produce an additional 15 titles with subjects that have yet to be determined. It is noted the most expensive part of producing an open textbook is image rights clearing. As images are cleared for this project, they will be available for resuse in even more titles. In addition, the Saylor Foundation sponsors an ongoing "Open Textbook Challenge", offering a $20,000 reward for newly-written open textbooks or existing textbooks released under a CC-BY license.
The Text and Academic Author's Association awarded a 2011 Textbook Excellence Award ("Texty") to the first open textbook to ever win such recognition this year. A maximum of eight academic titles can earn this award each year. The title "Organizational Behavior" by Talya Bauer and Berrin Erdogan earned one of seven 2011 Textbook Excellence Awards granted. Bauer & Erdogan's "Organizational Behavior" open textbook is published by Flat World Knowledge.
One common frustration with traditional textbooks is the frequency of new editions, which force the instructor to modify the curriculum to the new book. Any open textbook can be used indefinitely, so instructors need only change editions when they think it is necessary.
Many open textbooks are licensed to allow modification. This means that instructors can add, remove or alter the content to better fit a course's needs. Furthermore, the cost of textbooks can in some cases contribute to the quality of instruction when students are not able to purchase required materials. A Florida governmental panel found after substantial consultation with educators, students, and administrators that "there are compelling academic reasons to use open access textbooks such as: improved quality, flexibility and access to resources, interactive and active learning experiences, currency of textbook information, broader professional collaboration, and the use of teaching and learning technology to enhance educational experiences." (OATTF, p. i)
Author compensation for open textbooks works differently than traditional textbook publishing. By definition, the author of an open textbook grants the public the right to use the textbook for free, so charging for access is no longer possible. However, numerous models for supporting authors are developing. For example, a startup open textbook publisher called Flat World Knowledge pays its authors royalties on the sale of print copies and study aids. Other proposed models include grants, institutional support and advertising.
Legislation "to authorize grants for the creation, update, or adaption of open textbooks" and assure those developed would be made available under favorable licenses was introduced into the 111th United States Congress, both in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Findings specific to open textbooks detailed in the bill text are:
- The growth of the Internet has enabled the creation and sharing of open content, including open educational resources.
- The President has proposed a new, significant Federal investment in the creation of online open-source courses for community colleges that will make learning more accessible, adaptable, and affordable for students.
- The high cost of college textbooks continues to be a barrier for many students in achieving higher education, and according to the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, 200,000 qualified students fail to enroll in college each year due to cost.
- The College Board reported that for the 2007-2008 academic year an average student spent an estimated $805 to $1,229 on college books and supplies.
- Making high quality open textbooks freely available to the general public could significantly lower college textbook costs and increase accessibility to such education materials.
- Open textbooks can improve learning and teaching by creating course materials that are more flexible, adaptable, and accessible through the use of technology.
This legislation did not reach the floor of either chamber for debate or vote prior to the conclusion of the 111th Congress.
The current higher education textbook industry has voiced stiff opposition to creation and adoption of open textbooks. The industry is represented by Bruce Hildebrand, a former Senior Vice President from the controversial firm Hill & Knowlton International Public Relations, who is now acting as Executive Director for Higher Education for the Association of American Publishers.
A number of projects seek to develop, support and promote open textbooks. Two very notable advocates and supporters of open textbook and related open education projects include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
- California Open Source Textbook Project
- Global Text
- CK-12 Foundation
- Free High School Science Texts
- Saylor Foundation
- Learn More About Open Textbooks, the Student PIRGs
- Open Educational Resources. SPARC.
- Free to Learn Guide by Hal Plotkin. "An Open Educational Resources Policy Development Guidebook for Community College Governance Officials." (Funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation) Living document is open-licensed for iterative improvement. Creative Commons. 2010.
- Open Education Conference 2009. Interactive Open Textbook Panel Discussion. (Video, 1:02:08) Murugan Pal, CK12 Foundation; Eric Frank, Flat World Knowledge; Cable Green, WA State Board for Community and Technical Colleges; Barbara Illowsky, De Anza College; Steve Acker, Ohio State University.
- 2010 Horizon Report, Chapter 7 Johnson, L., Levine, A., Smith, R., & Stone, S. (2010) for the New Media Consortium and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative. Accessed Dec 23, 2010.
- Dramatically Bringing Down the Cost of Education with OER by the Center of American Progress.
- About the Licenses by Creative Commons
- Huffington Post, In The Public Interest : Open Textbooks and the Tech-Friendly Generation by Sarah Sather. Sep 30, 2010.
- Connexions. What are open textbooks? February 26, 2009. Accessed December 29, 2010.
- New Report Finds Switching To Open Textbooks Saves Students Thousands by Nicole Allen. September 30, 2010
- A Call for Open Textbooks by Steve Kolowich. Inside Higher Ed. October 1, 2010.
- The Textbook Alternative That Could Save Students $700 Per Year by Dennis Carter. eCampus News. October 7, 2010
- Florida Open Access Textbook Task Force Final Report submitted in fulfillment of the requirements contained in 1004.091(2) F.S. February 27, 2010.
- Washington's 2-year Colleges Out to Beat High Cost of Textbooks by Katherine Long. The Seattle Times. November 7, 2010.
- Ohio’s Digital Textbook Project Webinar Summary by Sue Polanka. No Shelf Required: Ebooks in Libraries. Wright State University. October 25th, 2010.
- Open Textbooks In California U.S. Department of Education. 2010.
- Governor: Texas Should Move to Online Textbooks by Kelley Shannon (AP) in Business Week. April 7, 2010.
- "BC to offer free textbooks online". CBC News Online.
- "BC to offer free textbooks online". The Globe and Mail. October 17, 2012. Retrieved 22 October 2012.
- "Can My K-12 School Save Money with Open Textbooks?" Department of Instructional Psychology and Technology and the Center for the Improvement of Teacher Education and Schooling at Brigham Young University. Research funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. 2011.
- Dr. Anthony Brandt wins National Endowment for the Arts Grant for Connexions Course on Connexions. November 23, 2010.
- Sound Reasoning by Dr. Anthony Brandt. Houston, TX: Connexions.
- Business Reference & Services Section (BRASS), American Library Association Reference and User Services Association. 2011.
- Outstanding Business Reference Sources: The 2010 Selection of Recent Titles. American Library Association Reference and User Services Quarterly. December 29, 2010.
- "Connexions Conference 2011: Part 3 by Barbara Illowsky. February 20, 2011.
- Description of Textbook Excellence Awards ("Textys") from the Text and Academic Author's Association. 2011.
- Organizational Behavior by Talya Bauer and Berrin Erdogan. Irvington, NY: Flat World Knowledge. 2010.
- OER: The Myth of Commercial Textbook Reliability by Geoff Cain. College Open Textbooks Community. March 19, 2011.
- ASU Statepress. Open Source Alternatives Bring Flexibility to Textbooks. February 25, 2010.
- 7 Things You Should Know About Open Textbook Publishing by Judy Baker and Jacky Hood. Educause Learning Initiative. March 8, 2011.
- Florida Open Access Textbook Task Force Final Report submitted in fulfillment of the requirements contained in 1004.091(2) F.S. February 27, 2010.
- Flat World Knowledge, Author's World
- Resources on Open Textbooks, the Student PIRGs
- S.1714.IS Open College Textbook Act of 2009 ("Introduced in Senate" = IS) by Richard Durbin (D-IL). Sep 24, 2009.
- Open Textbook bill by Greg DeKoenigsberg. Opensource.com. Dec 15, 2009.
- "Free Online Textbooks Becoming a Reality" by Tanika Cooper. Daily Nebraskan, University of Nebraska via UWire: The College Network. July 26, 2010.
- H.R.4575 - Open College Textbook Act of 2010 sponsored by David Wu (D-OR). Feb 2, 2010.
- "Publishers Criticize Federal Investment in Open Educational Resources" by Josh Keller. The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 24, 2011.
- Campus Overload Live with Jenna Johnson: College Textbooks January 13, 2011.
- Open Educational Resources The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
- Washington State Community and Technical Colleges Launch the Washington State Student Completion Initiative The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Oct 14, 2009.